A few months ago my youngest nephew visited me with my sister and brother-in-law. I spent some time alone talking with Aidan, who told me about the fears he was experiencing, especially at bedtime. His stories of lying in bed afraid before falling asleep, or waking up trembling in the middle of the night amidst the imaginary sounds and shadow intruders, touched my heart and brought back memories of my own childhood. I remembered feeling alone, ashamed, and misunderstood as grown-ups gave me such adult-like advice as “count sheep” or “just go back to sleep.” I really saw myself in my nephew’s fear and wanted to help.
Wanting to help is a funny thing though. It usually springs from compassion for another’s situation — like seeing myself in Aidan. We find ourselves in someone’s story and want to provide them with the comfort we may not have had in our own life. While helping often starts from compassion, it can often bring forth another equally powerful force — the need to be right. Somewhere in the midst of connecting with a person in need and feeling their pain, self-righteousness creeps in. Like a fungus on a loaf of bread, it may start in a small corner of the conversation. What feels like the innocent giving of advice slowly grows into our solution for all their needs, until before long the entire situation is covered in the green slime of our having to be right and our friend in need trapped between their own fear and our need to save them.
Adults are especially susceptible to this when addressing children’s needs. As a father of three children, I’ve been down that futile path a time or two (more like a hundred) and didn’t want to go there with my nephew. So I just listened and shared with him my own experiences with fear and insecurity. We shared war stories of bedtime encounters with the demons of the night … and we bonded. In fact, I enjoyed talked with Aidan so much that I forget I was the adult who was supposed to “fix” his problem; for a time, we were just two people sharing a common life experience.
Aidan asked me if I still had fears at night — did I still wake up afraid, wishing for a hug from my mom? That question hit me because my mom is gone and I long for her embrace when I’m afraid. And while I now have a lifetime of adulthood to show me my fears aren’t usually founded in reality, they’re still alive and present. They might not be real, but they sure feel real at the time. Like the story my teacher Sharon Salzberg shared with me about one of her teachers, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and his experience as he attempted to cross a glass bridge that connected two skyscrapers. As he took his first step he looked down and froze, every cell in his body convinced that with the next step he would plunge to his death on the street he could see so clearly through the glass-bottomed bridge. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t move. This would be embarrassing for any of us, but imagine this revered teacher, a man who had counseled countless other beings on overcoming fear, standing there frozen, unable to step out onto the glass and cross to the other side. His fear was, as Rinpoche said so eloquently, “real … but not true.” Real because he could feel it, like we all feel fear in our daily lives — and like my nephew experienced when he awoke alone in his bed in the night. But not true, because it’s not who we really are, just like the air below the teacher’s feet wasn’t empty … it contained solid, tempered, several-inch-thick glass and support beams that had carried thousands of people safely to the other side. So Tsoknyi Rinpoche looked around. He acknowledged his fear while acknowledging the truth. There was a bridge, there were many people walking across it, none of them was falling, and he determined it was safe to cross. So, in his eloquent words, “my fear and I walked across the bridge hand in hand.”
The first time I heard that story it touched me deeply. A teacher admitting his fear, not teaching how to conquer it but instead how to love it: a master and his fear walking together through life. That seemed to me at the time, and now again as I remember the story, like a perfect analogy for our own lives. Children, disguised in the grown-up costumes of adulthood, walking across the glass bridge of life developing tools to comfort our fears, to love ourselves, and to function in the “real world.”
That day when my nephew asked me if I was ever scared and how I coped with it, I told him the truth — fear creeps into my life all the time and, when it does, I acknowledge it and then I breathe and meditate until I find my way home to the safety and love of my heart. And then I asked him if he’d like to learn to meditate. He smiled big, with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old who was about to discover a hidden treasure, and said simply, “YES!”
I didn’t know how to teach a small boy to meditate, but I had an idea. In addition to bonding with me, Aidan had developed a special bond with our miniature dachshund Napoleon. It was a strange thing because Napoleon, as his name suggests, has a bit of a complex … he doesn’t like strange people who are bigger than he is, which means he doesn’t like many people outside of our home. But he loved Aidan and Aidan loved him. So I took my prayer beads off my wrist and offered them to my nephew with one simple instruction: “Close your eyes, thumb the beads, and silently, with each bead, say a word that makes you feel happy.” Aidan chose the word Napoleon.
That weekend we would meditate many times together, Aidan and I. I have to admit that much of my meditation was actually spent eyes-wide-open watching the beautiful grin of an eight-year-old boy thinking of the dog he had come to love. It was the sight of pure, innocent love, the kind that only a boy and a dog can share. At the end of their visit, as my nephew left, I gave him a set of prayer beads and a hug. I hoped he would continue meditating, but I figured, like most things in an eight-year-old’s life, the beads would end up under a pile of toys.
Over this Christmas break I visited my sister and her family at their home. When I had a moment to talk with my nephew I asked him if he was still meditating. He took my hand and led me to his room, showed me where his prayer beads were safely stashed, and told me that he meditated for ten minutes before bed each night and also whenever he woke up feeling scared. He shared that he was still using the word “Napoleon” and had added the word “family” and, sometimes, the mantra “don’t be scared” when the fears were especially strong. And then he told me something else, something amazing. “I used to be afraid of spiders. So I meditated on that every day for a week … and I’m not afraid of them anymore!”
“It’s nice to be in charge of yourself, right?” I asked in true admiration for his practice and accomplishment.
“Yes!” he said with the smile of a boy who had figured it out.
I received so many deeply profound lessons from this interaction with Aidan. The beauty of connection; the power of meditation; the value of daily practice in life; the love of a child and an animal. But perhaps the greatest lesson for me came in seeing my nephew as more than a little boy — in looking past his age and stature — and finding a teacher.
May we learn and grow. May we find teachers in everyone we meet. May we walk together, hand in hand, secure in the knowing that we are not alone.
Big hugs of love,
May we walk together, hand in hand, secure in the knowing that we are not alone.